Her Conference 2022: Inside the Star-Studded Symposium for Young Women in Communications
Here’s what I got out of it.
The interior was adorned with disco balls and pops of hot pink, fushia, and bright green. Attendees and staff alike flounced around in ultra-trendy clothing, as Harry Styles played in the background — you just can’t miss those colorful blazers with matching trousers, 3-inch platform boots, and pastel nails. If you told me that this was a Euphoria-themed party, I would’ve believed it.
Instead, I was at the Mezzanine in New York City for Her Conference, an annual career development event hosted by Her Campus, a media company catered to college women. And thank goodness, because I haven’t watched a single episode of Euphoria. But I do know a thing or two about writing.
I’m a lifestyle, culture, and wellness writer. As you can tell, I gravitate towards gonzo journalism and memoiry stuff, and it’s hard to find someone that GETS my career aspirations. Most of my fellow journalism majors are interested in hard news; my peers in creative writing programs seem to be more interested in fiction. Perhaps, it’s a good thing that none of my friends are pursuing a similar career path as me, because my toxic trait is that I can get a little too competitive. Still, I wished to meet more people like me, who wouldn’t roll their eyes when I promote my articles on Instagram for the unmpteenth time, and knows what I mean when I talk about listicles and pitches.
I found what I was looking for when I started writing for my college’s chapter of Her Campus, where “I” statements and colloquialisms were not merely tolerated but encouraged. Unfortunately, I had to step back for a bit, because I was overwhelmed with academic obligations. But when I received an email notification earlier this year announcing that Her Conference 2022 would be taking place in June 11th, my ears perked up. In the group chat for Her Campus TCNJ, one of the editors said that she had gone to Her Conference a few years ago and that she recommended it, especially for English and journalism majors. That was the final nudge I needed to hand over the extra $50 I had for a seat at Her Conference.
Fast forward to June 11th: I didn’t turn off my alarm and go right back to sleep, like I had been doing, since I came home for summer break. I slipped on an ivory lace dress with a black bow tie and overlined my lips with matte red lipstick. My parents shook their heads, saying that the dress was too cutesey, but I thought I looked fine (besides, according to trend forecaster Mandy Lee, who would be speaking at the event, twee isn’t dead yet).
The conference started a little past 9AM. Co-founder Windsor Western introduced herself and went over Her Conference’s mission.
“How many of you are from New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut?” she asked.
I raised my hand; so did the girl next to me, who’d told me that she was also from Bergen County, New Jersey.
“How many of you are from elsewhere?”
Several hands near me shot up. I looked around; this was nearly half of the audience.
Western asked the audience to call out where they’re from.
By all appearances, Her Conference was kind of a big deal. Obviously, I’ve never been to this conference before. I sat tight, trying not to stare too hard at at the 100+ girls sitting behind me. I was ready to find out what Her Conference 2022 was all about.
The first speaker was Jessica Pressler, a New York-based journalist. Her shtick? Writing film-worthy articles. In 2016, she wrote an article for New York magazine called The Hustlers At Score, which inspired the 2019 film, Hustlers. In 2019, she wrote another story for New York magazine on the infamous scammer Anna Delvey, which was adapted into — you guessed right — the Netflix original, Inventing Anna.
Pressler notes that she wasn’t the first journalist to break the story about Anna Delvey. And yet, hers was what captivated the media’s attention. Moderator Stephanie Kaplan Lewis remarked that it wasn’t just the article’s subject matter, but the information included in it, that made that article film-worthy. Pressler described her investigation of Delvey’s diablerie as akin to “pulling a string and it kept going and going.” Certainly, she has sewn together a compelling story.
Even as our collective attention spans appear to shrink by day, Presler believes that the market for slow, deliberative journalism is alive and well. There are plenty of opportunities for “longform features” and “in-depth reporting,” she reckons. As someone who can’t stop writing write long-ass pieces, this was reassuring to hear.
Next up was a panel of “extremely online” creators who spoke about protecting their wellbeing. The panel featured Rebecca Jennings, an Internet culture reporter at Vox, and Ysenia Valdez, social media manager for W Magazine, and Mandy Lee, a fashion journalist known as @oldloserinbrooklyn on TikTok.
Valdez said that it was important to draw a clear line between work and personal life. In her case, that meant creating a seperation between what she shares with random followers and what she shares with her close friends. “Authenticity and exposure are not the same,” she emphasized.
“My work overlaps with, just, me as a person,” said Lee. She doesn’t always know what and what not to share, she admits, but she always puts safety first:“I don’t share what neighborhood of New York City I work or live in.”
One of the reasons why solid boundaries are crucial when using social media is its depersonalizing nature. It seems that the potential for anonymity can bring out the worst in people. It’s all too common, for example, for people to hide behind burner accounts to harass others with no consequence.
Moreover, Valdez says, those who leave incendiary comments on news pages often forget that there’s a living, breathing person on the receiving end. She knows, because she’s worked as social media manager for Teen Vogue. Teen Vogue has nearly 4 million followers on Instagram and is known for its up-to-the-minute coverage of celebrities and frank discussions of sexuality, latter of which has turned the publication into right-wing moral panic fodder. Logging into @TeenVogue means seeing a fair share of hateful comments (there is a big difference between that and constructive criticism, Valdez noted).
Jennings is also no stranger to trolls: “The stuff that gets the most attention are the confrontational things, hyperbolic tweets, whatever. Half of the time it doesn’t really have much to do with you, it’s them intentionally misunderstanding what you’re putting out there and trying to spin in in a way that they can be mad about.” That sounds about right.
Oh, and did you know that Jennings scrolls on TikTok on the treadmill? It makes her feel more productive, she said. And yet, there’s one place where the Vox writer does not allow herself to open TikTok: her bed. Instead, she puts her phone on Do Not Disturb. That way, she can rest.
“There’s this sense of FOMO when you’re not online, or not reporting on something that is happening at this moment, but … you’re having FOMO for living your life. That’s what you should be worried about.”
Social media can be our best friend or our worst enemy depending on how we use it, and the speakers at Her Conference helped me clarify what I wanted — and didn’t want — from social media. The next panel, for example, discussed “the state of influencing in a post-perfectionist world.” The conversation featured Macketta Johns, social media manager at Bumble, Shelcy Joseph, an associate editor for fashion at Popsugar, and Eli Rallo, a TikTok creator.
The panelists agreed that they prefer “content creator” over “influencer” since the latter can hold a negative connotation — depending on who you ask. The content creators talked about the creativity and effort that goes into creating an engaging social media post, and challenged the perception that cultivating an online presence is a frivolous pursuit. “I think people always appreciate the realness, the fact that you can be approachable, but also … the aspirational editorial that we create,” said Johns.
I particularly resonated with what Rallo had to say. Like me, she’s a writer at heart. “My main goal was always to be a writer,” she stated. “I loved social media for the same reason why I loved theatre and journalism — having an audience, spark for dialogue and community.”
Rallo had recently completed her Master’s in Journalism at Columbia, when she went viral on TikTok. She abruptly left her full-time job and signed with a management company. From there, her following only kept growing. Eventually, she came full circle: “My agents reached out to me about putting together a book proposal and we signed a book deal last month.”
Would I leave my full-time job to become a social media star? Probably not. Do I think Eli Rallo is a really cool person that I’d love to talk to? Absolutely. Her upcoming book, I Didn’t Know I Needed This, is on my to-read list now.
While some Her Conference sessions catered to specific career paths, others casted a wider net. On one panel, activists discussed “effecting change when it feels like everything is on fire”. I was amazed by all the things they’ve done to make the world a better place, at such young ages. The panelists also got personal, giving us a glimpse into the feelings, values, and experiences that propel them into action. Another panel ran through key factors to consider when applying for a job. “Did my dream job exist back then? I don’t think so,” said Gigi Robinson, another content creator.
The non-linearity of carrer paths is a recurring theme echoed by the high-profile keynote speakers.
Growing up, comedian Hannah Berner wanted to become a tennis player. “A coach told me, ‘she’s too old to become a professional tennis player’ … I cried all day and spent the next probably 11 or 12 years trying to become a professional tennis player.” Her effort, indeed, came to fruition. By the time she was in high school, she was a promising varsity athlete: she was the captain of the tennis team, she had been ranked as Top 150 in the world, and she had a full scholarship to University of Wisconsin.
By the time Berner was in college, her love for tennis was replaced by a stifling sense of obligation. “This is going to sound weird, but just because you’re really good at something, doesn’t mean it’s what you’re meant to do,” she told the attentive audience.
Berner dabbled in sports broadcasting for an internship. There, she came one step closer to finding her passion. Public speaking and record buttons didn’t unnerve her: it exhilarated her.
Still, Berner had a long way to go. For the next few years, she worked in crummy jobs, while she posted videos online. At 25, everything was still up in the air for Berner.
Then, one day, she learned that Betches had a job opening for a video editor. She balked at first: “I kinda said, ‘That’s not me. I did editing for like 6 months and I have a pretty crappy internship right now.’”
Nevertheless, she went for it. After all, she said, men apply for jobs they’re underqualified for.
First, she submitted a “funny video.” “They liked it; they liked my voice,” she said. Then, she laid it all out on the table: “They were like, honey, you have zero experience. But I came in with 30 video ideas.”
And just like that, she was hired.
One day, Berner spoke to several cast members of Summer House. She became interested in joining the show.
“I wanted to show that women can be more than just ‘the hot girl’ or ‘the messy girl’ or ‘the mean girl’ or the labelled girl. I wanted to show that women can be sexy but depressed but insecure but confident.”
Once again, she went for it. “What’s the worst that can happen? You get fired.”
“[Betches] didn’t love that I wanted to do reality TV,” she explained.
She recounted: “I loved that job … I was broken. I was so upset. I pitched then a podcast, too: Berning in Hell… its a mental health comedy podcast. And I said, ‘Do you want to do it with me?’ and they were like, ‘No.’”
But Berner found her groove. “I did [Berning in Hell] on my own, went on [Summer House], and my platform started to grow.” During that time, Berner “fell in love” with stand-up comedy. She was finding her voice.
Today, Berner is a full-time media personality. “Failing forward, I found myself,” she declared.
The final, and perhaps the most anticipated, speaker was Coco Jones, singer and actress. Jones says she has always been passionate about the performing arts. From an early age, she knew exactly what she wanted: to become “the next Hannah Montana”.
“When you’re auditioning, there’s a thousand of girls, 500 girls, 200 girls, there’s 10, there’s 3, and then it’s you … It’s like, oh my God, it’s me!”
Disney offered her to have her own show, but she had other ideas. “I didn’t want to sign my life away for a show, so I didn’t do that,” she said. As a result, she had “skipped one of the steps in the only formula they knew,” which nonplussed the Disney executives. But Jones said that she was already different to begin with, because she “didn’t look like all the other [Disney] girls” — alluding to her experiences with colorism in Hollywood. What followed was an uphill, “tug-of-war” battle for creative control.
“It wasn’t until I was 16 or 17 that I was like, ‘wait, it doesn’t feel right that every idea was shot down.”
Eventually, her relationship with Disney disintegrated: her film projects were scrapped, Hollywood Records dropped her, and she faded from the limelight. But Jones said that her “break” was what allowed her to reconnect with herself.
Jones sound self-assured, as she speaks to moderator (and Her Campus co-founder) Annie Wang. Jones is making new music — cool and collected R&B — under Def Jam Records, and starring in the new sitcom Bel-Air (Season 2 is under way, she confirmed).
When it comes to setting goals, Jones find it helpful to focus on the “overall themes” without “getting too attached to specific outcomes.” As someone with heaps of abandoned writing projects (and heaps more to come), Jones’s approach to creating realistic expectations struck a chord with me. While setting concrete goals can be very helpful, it could also hold you back, if it’s unrealistic.
“The moment I got attached to a specific timeline and an outcome: that’s when I kept getting disappointed,” she said. “It’s not, oh, this song should go through this record label and this man here, he tell me, ‘you’re going to Hollywood’. It’s not that specific for me.”
Everything I’ve covered so far is just a small glimpse of the stories and the lessons shared in Her Conference 2022. Other speakers were: Meena Harris, Annie Wu Henry, Christy Piña, Deja Foxx, Hannah Siddoqui, Ileri Jayieoba, Iman Hariri-Kia, Mackenzie Cutruzzula, Naomi Lilly, Paola Ochoa, Sofia Onegle, Ví Martinez-Rivera, and Willa Bennet (you can see the program here).
An award was also held for outstanding members of InfluencerHer Collective, a branch of Her Campus Media that supports young influencers. “I’ve been a part of [InfluenceHer Collective] for a couple of years now, working with them as an influencer and a content creator […] I was nominated, and then I got people to vote for me, and I made it to the final round, and I won!” said Liv Reese, who won Beauty Influencer of the Year.
The event ran until 6PM. If we’re being completely honest, my expectation for Her Conference wasn’t stellar. I was prepared to sit through long, boring lectures, in order to network with anyone who didn’t hate me. But the presentations were actually pretty neat, and I’m not just saying that because I could write an article about it.
A conversational approach kept long talks from becoming tedious. Even the solo keynote speakers (aside from Berner, who held her own with her comedic sensibilities) were paired with moderators who asked them questions. It was massively helpful, too, to see what a good interview looks like.
The speakers were eloquent. Moreover, they were conversant in today’s media landscape, and tailored their advices to the unique strengths of Gen Z. Macketta Johns said: “Gen Z doesn’t take any shit. They know what they want, and they’ll ask for it.” Barbara Alyssa Gonzalez, a podcast editor at Spotify, also expressed her “respect and excitement for Gen Z.”
The amenities were A+. All attendees were provided with phone charging stations, snacks, and cornucopia of free products. I obtained an exclusive sample of Victor and Rolf’s new perfume Good Fortune (it smells like a cross of Flowerbomb and Alien, but far less woody and more musky) and a full-size vitamin C serum from CeraVe (which I had to stop using, because it worsened my acne). During intermissions, long lines formed around the outskirts of the stadium for a tarot reading by Sarah Potter, and a professional headshot by Bumble. We also got a $20 gift card to eat at a nearby restaurant during the 95-minute lunch break. Upon my return, staff hollered at us, “Happy Birthday!” and handed us a goody bag. It’s a make-up birthday gift, explained co-founder Windsor Western.
“Her Campus media has grown a lot since the last conference we did in 2019,” Western later told me. She said that the path to Her Conference 2022 wasn’t an easy one. “In December when we normally would have secured a venue, we were in the middle of the Delta wave. And then, it was January and there was the Omicron wave. But we were able to pull it together on a tight timeline.”
Attendee Marshele Parker traveled all the way from North Carolina for Her Conference. “I wanted to be around a whole bunch of beautiful, empowered women,” she told me. Parker joined Her Campus during her time at A&T State University, where she majored in political science and public relations. As an activist, she says she likes Her Campus’s “focus towards community service and giving back to your community.”
Gone are the days where “women’s magazines” only talked about clothes, makeup, and pleasing men. When I wrote for Her Campus during my first semester of sophomore year, my editors always reiterated, “You can write about whatever you want to.” Her Campus provides an encouraging, non-judgmental space for college women (and others) to express themselves. The platform is helpful for both novice and advanced writers looking to build a portfolio. It’s also a good option for those who are intimidated by — or don’t care for — the stringent editorial guidelines often seen in a traditional college newspapers.
That being said, I’m afraid that Her Campus has not yet broken out of the Corporate Girlboss™️ cliche. Her Conference paid lip service to inclusion by encouraging participants to share pronouns, featuring racially diverse speakers, giving airtime to discussions of activism, but it leaves much to be desired.
In my opinion, the biggest area of improvement for Her Campus is mindfulness around varying backgrounds and socioeconomic factors. Throughout the conference, there was a heavy emphasis on exploration, experiementation, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and while these are admirable goals, not everyone can afford to take the sort of risks that the speakers did. Without a doubt, all of the speakers shared valuable lessons, and their contributions are much appreciated. They also presented an opportunity to start a conversation on the realistic and surprisingly common obstacles facing twenty-somethings: Financial hardships. Mental and physical health problems. Workplace discrimination and harassment… You get the idea. Her Conference 2022 missed that opportunity.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed attending Her Conference 2022. In many ways, hearing about the speakers’ career paths was reassuring: being ‘behind’ is not a death sentence, and there aren’t expiration dates on dreams. It was also a bit surreal to physically see some of the people that I’ve been following online and observing through a screen. I just went up to them and told them, I’m obsessed with your videos or I love your recent article. It was such a cool experience.
My only regret is that I didn’t take the initiative to speak to more people. I tempered my outgoing nature out of fear that my interest won’t be reciprocated, but I now see that many other attendees are also looking to network and make new friends.
Moments like this are the moments where I appreciate living just an hour away from New York City. Growing up in the suburbs, I always thought that the concrete jungle was ugly and gross and way too chaotic. But a bustling city is also an exuberant one, teeming with opportunity. I also didn’t know until recently that most of the magazines I enjoy have headquarters NYC! I still think I want to move to Los Angeles after I graduate, but I’d be damned if I didn’t give some love to the Big Apple.